The BBC’s beginning to look like a Sunset Home for failed politicians. In fact, switch on almost any channel and you’ll soon be face to face with a past-it pontificator, busy proving that no political career can end so disastrously, no parliamentary defeat be so final, no public disgrace so shameful, that it cannot be turned to good account in the media. They re everywhere, and they’ve long since moved on from politics. Edwina Currie specialises in sex and cooking, Ann Widdecombe foxtrots, Michael Portillo rides the rails, Neil Hamilton stars in his own pantomime – in his case more a change of location than career.
Jacqui Smith is the latest to step from the wreckage of a personal parliamentary plane crash, dust herself down, and offer herself to the airwaves. The expenses scandal did for her. She plunged, scrabbling frantically, into the chasm between what MPs felt was their legitimate entitlement and what the voters saw as taking the michael.
She had declared that a spare room in her sister’s London place was her principal home so she could claim £116,000 from public funds towards the family house in Redditch where even her own website said she really lived. In vain did she argue that she spent more time in London. And when it then turned out her husband had charged the taxpayer for renting two pornographic films, humiliation was piled on shame. She was sacked from the Home Office and, shortly afterwards, dumped by the voters of Redditch.
You sense that she is still smarting with the unfairness of it all. She’s careful to say she’s sorry for the mistakes she’s made, but has said publicly she was picked on because she was a woman.
Anyway, that is all behind her now. Her Twitter page describes her as a “recovering politician”. She says, “It’s an addiction I haven’t actually broken yet.” So to wean herself from it, she’s gone off for Radio 5 Live to reassess the decisions about drugs that she made as home secretary.
It was Jacqui Smith who, in 2008, famously ignored her scientific advisers and reclassified cannabis as a class B drug, toughening up the law to the extent that users can now be jailed for five years, dealers for 14. She says that it was not her idea but that of the then PM Gordon Brown – though she insists she came to support it.
Now she’s gone back to revisit that decision, talking to drug users, social workers, police, and the scientist she ignored. Her conclusion? If you were being cruel, she’s confused. If fairer to her, you would go with her view that she’s now more “nuanced”.
Most of the time, she defends what she did to the hilt. “I don’t think it was the wrong thing to do,” she says. “If I was in the same position, in the same circumstances, facing the same pressures, I would take the same decision.”
Her argument then, and now, is that the nature of cannabis had changed with the arrival of “skunk”, a more powerful variant than the weed she contritely admits to smoking at Oxford (see right). There was more evidence of psychotic ill-effects and – she’s big on this – there was a need to “send a message”.
None of this washes with her most senior scientific adviser at the time, Professor David Nutt, whom she meets – extraordinarily, for the first time – in making the programme. Professor Nutt is as polysyllabically qualified as he is outspoken. So much so that Jacqui Smith’s successor – Alan Johnson – fired him.
The meeting was apparently cordial. He says she was “charming”. She says, “We got on pretty well.” But each clearly thinks the other is clueless.
She reckons he’s impossibly naive about government: “He kept saying I was playing politics and ignoring the evidence. What did he expect? I am a politician. And politics is the application of judgement to evidence”.
Professor Nutt is less polite about their encounter. “She, like most politicians, has the delusion whatever they think is right; they lack all humility. I was hoping she would listen, understand and wise up a bit. Instead, she was merely looking to justify herself.
“Yes, cannabis has got stronger; that’s what happens when you make drugs illegal. During Prohibition people stopped drinking beer and started drinking spirits. Yes, it does some harm, but far less than alcohol. She’s made people who’ve taken the rational decision to use cannabis rather than alcohol into criminals. It was gesture politics, of the worst kind.”
Smith won’t have that. She says she found people still using the drug despite the law, but not as much, less publicly, and not dealing; others for whom arrest had led to recovery schemes.
She has had some second thoughts, though: “I’m more sympathetic now to the argument that there are people who use cannabis without harm. I don’t want tough messages being sent out by the law always translated into tough action against individuals.”
Fortunately, she says, the police are being “interestingly discreet” in how they apply the law. Actually, most of the time they’re ignoring it. She seems perilously close to saying what she did was OK because nobody’s taking any notice.
Somehow the more she talks the more contradictions, or perhaps nuances , crop up. Cannabis should be illegal because, otherwise, people would start earlier and risk greater harm. At the same time “politicians are far too inclined to turn to the law. Sometimes it’s better to resist that.”
She adds, “Legislation is a blind alley that sidetracks everybody into discussing the law rather than the impact of the drugs themselves and how to deal with them.”
I make the obvious point that, as it was her that changed the law, she was the one doing the sidetracking, but she doesn’t agree. “I really don’t think I was wrong,” she says – again.
It doesn’t say a lot for our political system that Smith says she’s been able to go more deeply into this issue for a radio programme than she did when she was making big decisions about it in Parliament. But the exercise is fascinating for the way her views seem to be shifting behind the politician s reflex of self-justification.
As I left our meeting, she said, “I am less hardline now, than I was then.” And getting less hardline by the day, in fact. Twenty-four hours after our interview I got an email that’s worth quoting in some detail.
She was right to be worried, she says, and right to raise the issue. “But from the people I’ve talked to in this programme, I know that it [the reclassification of cannabis] also caused confusion and dissent. Was that worth the positive impacts of the change in law that I introduced? I’m no longer sure it was. I don’t believe in decriminalisation or legalisation. But knowing what I know now, I would resist the temptation to resort to the law to tackle the harm from cannabis. Education, treatment and information, if we can get the message through, are perhaps a lot more effective.”
So the home secretary who cracked down on cannabis now doesn’t believe the law should be used to deal with it at all. But neither does she want it decriminalised. Confused? Me, too.
Perhaps that’s the point. Drugs are complex and politics is about simplicities; the brisk choice between right and wrong, the quick fix. Life’s not like that and if Jacqui Smith brings that home to us she will have done us a service. Besides, by the time the radio programme is actually broadcast, who knows what she will think?
Jacqui Smith re-examines the decision to re-classify cannabis in Stoned Again – tonight at 10:00pm on Radio 5 Live